Despite conditions stacked against collaboration, women leaders in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo are forging ahead to build solidarity and a global force for change.
Nobel Peace Laureate Leymah Gbowee of Liberia paid a visit last February to Bukavu, DRC. There, in a gesture of solidarity, she met with Neema Namadamu, Passy Mubalama, and a room full of grassroots women peacemakers and change leaders.
It is easy to imagine women among this group one day joining Gbowee in the ranks of Nobel Peace Prize winners. But the goals of the Maman Shujaa Hero Women of Congo are more immediate than individual accolades and international recognition. They are embarking on the same arduous path that Gbowee herself once followed: a path of coalition building, grassroots organizing, and gradually uniting women across ethnic and geographic borders toward a unified vision.
Ever since Neema Namadamu established the first media center for women in her home region of Bukavu, South Kivu, her impact has been radiating outward as the Maman Shujaa movement grows.
It has reached Goma, North Kivu, where youth activist Passy Mubalama was inspired to join forces with Neema. Passy has connected regionally with women in Bukavu. And now—through World Pulse training—her local organization in Goma is connected online with women change leaders around the world.
World Pulse interviewed Neema and Passy via email to learn about their work together and their visions to build their movement beyond their local communities.
What benefits have you witnessed from women connecting across geographical regions?
Passy: Networking with other women in the DRC is the best thing that ever happened to me. Through World Pulse, I have gotten to know many other women and every day I continue to learn from them. Before I logged on, I did not know Neema Namadamu, although we were in the same country with the same target to help women of our country.
When Neema and World Pulse invited me to Uvira, South Kivu to join in the digital training and share my story and my experience with other women, I had never met Neema, except through talking on the phone. It was powerful to see in front of me this woman I had seen only on pictures. There, in South Kivu, I found a new sister. Now we are working together hand in hand, and we support each other.
Women in my community are really excited about our new project in Goma to train women to use the Internet and connect with other women in the world. Working together, we share training opportunities and requests for proposals. Before I was alone, but now I have a big family who support me to make the voices of my Congolese sisters heard.
Neema: I never imagined how being online would transform my own life, so I could never have considered that we would have a powerful force for change in eastern Congo called the Maman Shujaa! This phenomenon was only possible by being online and connected to a world without borders.
People call these online connections virtual connections, as if they aren’t real. But I can tell you that I am too busy living in the good of it all to spend time arguing with anyone about whether or not my online relationships are real or not. It is certainly wonderful to get a chance to hug the neck of someone you’ve come to know online. But when that opportunity presents itself, after the hug, we just pick up where we left off online. I met so many of my close connections online first. Meeting in-person was the icing on the cake we were already enjoying! From World Pulse members to UN Special Envoy Mary Robinson, to Leymah Gbowee, to so many more. And I still have so many wonderful friendships with sisters and brothers around the world whose necks I’ve not yet had a chance to hug.
We have our Center here in Bukavu where women are coming online to connect with their global sisterhood. We have one another for support here, and it is wonderful. But our connections to colleagues all over the world has really lifted us as a community. I lost count of the countries represented by those who signed our online petition for a U.S. Special Envoy in DRC, but it was over 50. Doing our work in Congo while connected to people and organizations all over the world validates our work as part of the universal bent to set things right everywhere.
Our work is local, yet our reach and impact is worldwide. And the opposite is also true: Because of our international relationships, the work we do locally is in keeping with the worldwide movement for change. Through our relationships with World Pulse, Nobel Women’s Initiative, Global Network of Women Peacebuilders, UN Special Envoy Mary Robinson, Global Fund for Women, Women’s Earth and Climate Action Network we know that we are working as part of the whole; that our impact contributes to the universal agenda of mutual respect, equality and rights, and intelligent stewardship of our planet.
It is really wonderful to know that the work we are doing in eastern Congo is not only impacting women, their families, and our rich eco-heritage here, but that the work we are doing is universal in its context—that our local contributions are part and parcel of the global move of sanity challenging the caustic systems and their accepted norms all over the world.
What are the biggest barriers and challenges to working together across regions that women in the DRC face?
Passy: Most women in the DRC have not yet realized that working together is our strength. Everyone wants to work alone; every woman wants her own organization to be known and her dreams be realized; but they forget that this can be realized only if women are working in a network.
Other barriers include a high illiteracy rate, lack access to education, and the lack of access to the Internet.
Neema: Our biggest barrier is accessing one another. Internet is key but it is very expensive and very unstable (we have intermittent electricity and either slow or non-existent connection). Most women don’t have a computer and few have access to the Internet. We have colleagues in Uvira a few hours south of us in South Kivu who struggle to get online. First you have to walk some distance to an internet café, then hope to get online, then pay the required fees. Such limited access therefore greatly inhibits our ability to work together.
Passy: Customs and traditions have also given the priority to access the Internet only to men, while women are forced to take care of the house and to stay at home. In my society women who have an interest in the Internet are considered “difficult women”. Parents struggle to keep their children, particularly girls, away from the Internet because they believe that youth go online only to watch pornographic films. This has created a big delay for women, who have remained ignorant to new information technologies and who need ways to connect and work together in the region.
Neema: Another obstacle is for women to see the benefit to committing to go to a training or join the Maman Shujaa Center. Women going online is a rare thing here. Computers and the Internet are considered to be man-things. Also it is thought to be very complicated. Women are always surprised to see how easy and wonderful it is to learn to use a computer and go online.
How are you working to overcome these barriers and connect with women in other regions?
Passy: Before I joined World Pulse, I was working alone, and I was not succeeding. Now that I am connected, my network is growing every day. I connect online with other women who are working in the same area as my organization, Action and Development Initiatives to Protect Women and Children (AIDPROFEN), in eastern DRC.
I am in contact with other women in DRC and around the world, and now I recognize the importance of sharing my experience with other women in my country.
Neema: We offer Internet access through the Maman Shujaa Centers in Bukavu and Itombwe. We have been blessed to be able to offer a number of trainings for women from other territories and provinces. We invite as many women as our funding allows to come from far away and participate. And sometimes we take the training to them.
What goals are you trying to advance and how does building cross-regional solidarity help achieve these goals?
Passy: As young women, we have a big responsibility; the future of our countries is in our hands. As a young leader my responsibility is to help other women to become leaders. The Internet is one of the tools we are using to engage more women and girls to express themselves and to tell their stories.
Today there are so many opportunities through the Internet: jobs, funding for our projects, scholarships, etc. Women must fight hard to access all this opportunity for their own development.
Neema: Our main goal is simply making women aware that they themselves hold the key to their own future. From there we do what we can to realize that future by connecting them online. They then begin to advocate for themselves, their sisters, their families and communities. They apply what they learn in the trainings and begin to build themselves up to create the future they’ve been writing about.
We hold weekly trainings in the Bukavu Center on specific topics, including entrepreneurship, networking, or responding to an RFP. We’ve held photography classes to teach women how to take a telling photo. Lately, I have been teaching women how to leverage their profile page on World Pulse as their own personal website. Now they have a place to send prospective donors or other interested parties to learn more about their initiatives.
Once the women have expressed their hearts, they want to start doing all that they’ve been writing about. They want to bring about the change they’ve been advocating for. They need support, training, collaborators, sponsors, etc. So we not only teach basic computer skills, but also teach basic business skills. And because we are online, we can invite women at the Itombwe Center and the temporary Center in Goma to our Bukavu trainings without them having to leave their chairs.
How do you envision this movement building from here?
Passy: By growing a network of Congolese women, we are making our voices heard through the Internet and social media, uniting our voices and discussing different problems women are facing in our region. This platform will help our advocacy at the local, national, and even the international level.
Neema: The wonderful thing about this movement inspiring people all over the world is that it’s coming from within. People aren’t joining a cause but are being stirred in their hearts. That’s why there is so much solidarity rather than jockeying and positioning. This is what I mean when I say “We don’t want a world of leaders and followers, but leaders only – all of us together leading this world into the good of all that’s possible.” Those who are truly leading these days are not inspiring followers but encouraging each one to find the inspiration within to lead the way into realization of all that is not only possible, but intended.
I love being at the Maman Shujaa Centers and interacting with whomever comes in that day, and then I go online and share with my sisters around the world. We are strengthening and empowering one another, encouraging, supporting, and assisting one another to manifest that new day on the horizon, where none will be left behind.
Passy Mubalamais a human rights defender and World Pulse Correspondent from the Democratic Republic of Congo. She is the eldest of twelve children and the only one of her family to finish high school and college. She grew up witnessing the abuse of women in her family and community and felt powerless to stop it. She was determined to complete her studies so that she might go on to help women learn and stand up for their rights. She is the founder of Action and Development Initiatives to Protect Women and Children (AIDPROFEN Association), a nonprofit organization based in Goma. She was recently selected for the Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders 2014. As a fellow she spent seven weeks this summer in the United States, and met with US President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama.
Neema Namadamuhas been an advocate for change since her teens when she hosted a weekly program on Congo’s national radio. Neema served in her province’s parliament and at the national level as technical adviser to Congo’s Minister of Gender and Family. Since returning home from Kinshasa to eastern DRC in 2007, she has actively advocated for peace, for women, for persons with disabilities, and for the greatly marginalized indigenous peoples. With World Pulse’s help, Neema opened a women’s media center in July of last year to teach digital literacy and facilitate online advocacy for members, who have named themselves the Maman Shujaa, or Hero Women, of Congo. Follow Neema and the Maman Shujaa atwww.namadamu.comand onFacebook.